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Getting Back in the Game After Surgery

The right kind of activity and exercise can help you recover faster.

water therapy for rehabilitation

— Justin Pumfrey/Getty Images

I've had my share of surgeries over the years, including knee surgery and my recent lumpectomy to treat breast cancer. One of my biggest fears about these procedures was that they might keep me from participating in my favorite sports and physical activities. But I've learned that the right kind of exercise can actually speed your recovery from many types of surgeries.

Take hip replacement. In the United States, doctors perform this procedure about 120,000 times a year, and the success rate for eliminating pain and restoring mobility is high. To improve your odds of a successful outcome, ask your surgeon to recommend rehabilitative exercises, which will probably include walking and gentle cycling on a high-seated stationary bike. Such activities can help extend your range of motion and speed healing.

Before my knee surgery, my doctor recommended that I exercise to get the muscles around my knee — mainly the quadriceps and hamstrings — as strong as possible. So I did some straight leg lifts and cycling. After the surgery, when my knee had healed, I gradually increased my activity level, first with walking up and down stairs, and then with low-impact sports such as swimming and biking.

Older athletes sometimes need shoulder surgery to repair the rotator cuff, a collection of four small muscles in the shoulder (they hold the ball-and-socket joint in place while allowing the arm to rotate). But anyone can injure these muscles or their ligaments with a sudden, jerky movement, such as lifting a heavy box.

Again, ask your doctor about appropriate rehab exercises. One of the easiest and best involves a resistance band. Attach the band to a doorknob. Then bend your arm at the elbow, keeping your elbow tucked against your side. Grip the cord and slowly rotate your arm in toward your chest. Hold this position for five seconds; then release the tension slowly. Do 10 repetitions twice a day, and you'll feel the strength returning to your shoulder.

In January 2010, my doctor told me that my mammogram had come back positive. As I clutched the phone, I kept thinking, "I can't have breast cancer." The world seemed to be slowing down and speeding up all at once. I had a lumpectomy and ended up undergoing six weeks of radiation therapy.

One of the many things I learned during this experience was that exercise is an important component in breast cancer recovery. Recent studies indicate that physical activity can improve your quality of life, help lift fatigue during chemotherapy and radiation, and even increase the odds of long-term, cancer-free survival.

Recuperative exercises target the shoulder and arm on the affected side, with the goal of regaining normal range of motion, endurance and strength. My oncologist recommended beginning with light resistance exercises by using only my own body weight; I gradually progressed to weight training to strengthen my upper body. Cardiovascular exercise and yoga were also part of my daily routine. If you're recovering from cancer surgery, be sure to ask your oncologist for guidance about exercise.

Most doctors and rehabilitation therapists agree that water therapy — doing exercises in a pool, for example — is one of the best ways to recover after surgery. Water therapy helps in two ways: The water provides gentle resistance for muscle strengthening, and the buoyancy of the water keeps things easy on your joints.

Any type of surgery can take a physical toll, but try to remain as active as you can, within the limits of your doctor's orders. The right kind of exercise is healing and can help you get back in the game.

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